“Veni, vedi vici.” – translation: “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Gaius Julius Caesar in a six-word letter to Rome on his progress at war circa 60 BC.

Day Ninety-Three September 18th

All roads lead to Rome.  As they should.  We are up early for the drive, excited to be heading south and looking forward to getting back into an urban environment.  We have a quick breakfast then hit the main highway down the Adriatic coast.  The drive is beautiful with long curves rounding hillsides that wash into the sea.  They are covered with gardens, lush and green.  I wish we had a convertible.  

Some of the hillsides soon turn to mountains and we need to go through them instead of around.  At some point we drive inland and start a series of tunnels that takes us across central Italy and out of the sunshine and then in and out of pockets of rain.  

The drive is easy if you ignore the Italians.  They can’t drive.  I assume they think we can’t drive but that’s not true.  We can drive: I learned in New York and drive in LA so I have some perspective on this one.  These people never bothered to learn, they just got behind the wheel, punched the clutch and stepped on the gas.  If anything or anyone gets in the way they just hit the horn and start yelling.  

The trick is to always, and I stress always, assume you are right and the other person is wrong.  It doesn’t matter what the issue.  If you want to drive on the sidewalk go right ahead, just make sure you yell and honk at anyone that shouts at you, except for the old people, always stop and given them the right of way, they will take it anyway since they believe, actually they know, they deserve it more than you.  

The same holds true for parking.  Feel free to stop anywhere: middle of the road, sidewalks, in other people’s driveways, in front of hydrants, in handicapped spots. It doesn’t matter as long as you where dark glasses and act like you are in a hurry.  

On the highway drive as fast as you can and honk if anyone is going slower than you are.  Do not slow down for any reason, the sole exception being if you see red taillights and pass a sign with a picture of a camera and a big red letters on it.  This is one of the traffic ticket cameras and everyone seems to know exactly where they are and what the speed needs to be.  You can drop from 150k back down to 80K in a matter of seconds only to resume the 150K when the little sign passes by.  What a system.  

Rome is actually very easy to drive into.  It’s not so easy to drive in, but the approach itself is pretty straightforward.  One of the hardest things to do is to keep watching the road with all of the sights flying by and the cars coming at you.  There are ruins everywhere.  We pass the Coliseum, the Forum, statues, fountains, old walls and aquaducts.  The kids are like spinning tops as we shout out “Look at that one, and that one, over here, look over there, check that out!” 

We found our apartment on Home Away.  It is tucked into a little side street somewhere in the historic section of town, in an area with restricted driving access. No cars allowed after 2p.  At 2:07p we arrive.   Instead of doing the Italian thing and ignoring the restrictions we are good tourists and park along the river. Teri then heads into the maze of small streets to (1) find and ATM to get the rest of the cash we need to pay for the apartment and (2) see how far we need to carry the bags.  I wait with the kids who are about to explode with excitement.

Turns out the parking gods took care of us and are only half a block from our building.  With a week to explore the city we wanted to be in our own place, with a nice kitchen to take full advantage of the local markets and some room to spread out, lounge around and relax.  At this point in the trip we are looking for a home instead of a hotel, even if it is for just a while. 

Jill (American) and Stephan (German) are waiting for us when we ring the buzzer.  They are incredibly nice people.  This is their apartment that they rent out from time to time: it is their home, very much like we do with our place in Malibu.  

To give a sense of the impression the apartment makes on us is nearly impossible.  You really need to be here.  The building is 500+ years old, sitting on a corner of a cobblestone side street across from an elementary school and down the block from a large church.  The old wooden door opens into a courtyard with a loin head coming out of the wall, spitting water into a huge basin.

The staircase is grand and the elevator is tiny with doors that you close by hand.  The outer door to the apartment opens to a smaller entranceway that has another door opening up into the apartment.   All of the doors are ancient.

When you walk in you immediately notice the high ceilings and the sense of space.  And that it seems to go on forever.  The ceilings are originals, hand painted hundreds of years ago.  Since Jill and Stephan are in the art world almost every inch is covered with art of some kind, all of it perfectly placed and situated.  Books line all of the walls and huge French windows open onto the street in both front and back.  Remember, we have been living in a 7m camper for two months, so at first, we find it hard to even speak.

Our hosts need to run to catch a train to Florence for the weekend so we get a quick download on instructions and then they are off.  In a matter of minutes we are all sitting comfortably on down couches just looking at each other and laughing at our good fortune.  It is too good to be true.

After we stop wandering around getting use to the space, Teri heads out for a quick shop and then I begin my quest to return the car.  For some reason the GPS decided to stop working as I pass the Mausoleo Augusto.  I was on Lungtevere Marzio heading towards Lungotevere Augusta and then I think I am supposed to turn onto Via Ferdinandi di Savola or something like that, where I do a quick right and catch Via Princi Clotilde by the Piazza die Popolo.  What was that name again? 

Instead I am on a bridge going in the wrong direction in what might be a bus lane for oncoming traffic. Vespas come at you at astonishing speeds: they have replaced chariots but its clear the competition remains.  I do the only thing I can: I start blowing my horn, hitting my palm on my forehead and shouting at the other cars.  When in Rome…

The walk back across the city is a pleasure.  It is early evening on a warm Saturday in September.  The streets are crowded, the sun is shining low it the sky, dinner tables are being set and shops are opening back up for the evening.  In the twenty minutes it takes to find our place the streets come alive.  I can’t wait for tomorrow when we can start to explore.

Day Ninety-Four September 19th

Rome has been crumbling forever.  The Romans don’t seem to mind too much though: in fact they seem to make the best of it since they really have no choice in the matter.  Plus “old” looks good on the city with the really old stuff from BC, mixing with “newly old” stuff from AD, to paint a picture of all things Roman.  

The Pantheon is one of these things.  Let me say upfront for those that slept through History in their youth that the Pantheon should not be confused with the Parthenon. When you go looking for a bunch of columns on the hill and end up with a dome in the middle of a square it can be very confusing. Not that I would know, just that it may happen to some people. 

Anyway the Pantheon has been around for two thousand years and is the largest unreinforced concrete dome ever built.  The unreinforced part does cross your mind when you stand underneath it.  Another cool thing is that the diameter is the same as the height.  The place is impressive even with the crowds.  There are so many people that you have to fight for floor space. It’s like being in a mosh pit.  

We are in and out in ten minutes.  Check off sight number one.  Vince is convinced the guys outside dressed as ancient Roman soldiers charging for photos are real.  He keeps pointing to and talking about the swords.  We have entered the stage of swords and guns and light sabers.  Such the boy.

Adele and I are focused on gelato.  Lonely Planet has a list of the top five places in the city and we have made it our mission to check them out.  The first stop is Gelatoria Giolitti, a personal favorite of several Popes. 

The place has an attitude.  First off they charge to sit.  I can’t stand that.  Why charge people to sit at a table if they buy something from you?  I still don’t understand it.  Then you pay first and head over to the counter where you fight everyone else to get the servers attention to place your order.  Think of buying a round at White Horse Tavern in NYC on a Friday afternoon around 5:30p.  

I can belly up with the best of them and we manage to get the guys attention but Adele is completely overwhelmed with choices and Teri insists on tasting samples so we end up losing him.  Luckily Vince and I placed our orders, a caffe and pistachio cup and a watermelon cone, before he got away.  We leave the Chicas to fend for themselves.

I get why Pope John Paul II ordered in at the Vatican.  It is superb.  And to think it is only 11a and we are eating ice cream.  The kids just can’t believe it is so.  

Wandering around Piazza Navona and exploring the Pantheon was supposed to take a few hours and be our main sights of the day.  We banged them both out in half an hour.  Best laid plans.  We know from experience that wandering aimlessly in a city with two small children is a mistake.  So we decide to have lunch as soon as we finish our gelatos.  

It turns out that not one but two of the restaurants recommended by Lonely Planet are closed.  Not for good, just for lunch on Sundays.  In a strange twist of fate we find another version of the first one, Pizzeria da Baffetto II, tucked away on a small square off Campo de Fiori, with make shift tables jetting out on the street.   It is packed and the pizza looks amazing so we grab a table.

They ignore us.  I can’t tell if they ignore everyone but for some reason we seem to be invisible.  I know when we order that it’s a mistake.  The food takes forever.  I kid you not we wait almost an hour for three plate size pizzas.  The other tables all turn over while we sit and wait and wait and wait.  

It is times like these that travel becomes weary.  All you want is to eat something and go home and rest but you can’t because you need to eat out and feed the kids and there is not food at the apartment yet and the waiters refuse to see you wave and the pizza takes forever and the guide book is only 50/50 at best and you can’t understand anyone and on it goes.  Until suddenly you are all sitting silently in the back of a crowded restaurant, heads down, just trying to get through the next hour.  It comes on fast.   

Eventually we wind our way back home to nap and rest.  By days end we have gone to the store for the basics so we can eat in, talked for a long time to family and friends back in the States, unpacked and settled in.

It is nice to be in a place for more than a day or two.  This is our first week in one place since we left Malibu.

Day Ninety-Five September 20th 

Monday morning means school.  Nothing like reading about the Vatican as part of your class work in the morning then standing in the center of St. Peters at noon.  

I grew up with Catholics and know them to be a pretty serious bunch.  There were lots of them on Long Island: mostly Italian and Irish, big families with hoards of kids. Growing up Presbyterian I was always jealous that they had a choice to go to Mass on Saturday evening instead of waking up early on Sunday.  Especially during the high school years when sleeping in meant everything.

On occasion as a kid I would go with friends to Mass at St. Anthony’s, everyone went to church back then.  We would all pile into station wagons with three little ones in the way back, four in the back and the parents up front.  People crossed themselves with holy water, priest burned incents, everyone knew all the words and sang along in Latin, we all knelt and prayed and lit candles.  It was great fun: so much more pomp and circumstance than our little church across the street.  You would think this would be enough prep for the Vatican.  Think again.  

Standing in the center of St. Peter’s Square, in the shade of an obelisk brought to Rome by Caligula, circled by 284 columns capped with 140 saints, is surreal.  It is like nothing else: you come to know sheer unbridled power and wealth. 

Then when you walk into the Basilica, into the work of Michelangelo, and stand where Charlemagne was crowned, and by the tomb of St. Peter, and the high alter of the Pope, with its soaring dome and massive statues, it is hard to fathom and understand. It is all so much, so vast and so awesome.  

When you walk though the door and see the interior for the first time you skip a beat.  I actually stop walking and pull in one of those short quick breaths just to try and settle down and digest what we are looking at.  Even the kids stop the constant chatter.  We wander through, mostly in silence. 

Teri and Adele find a side chapel and send a prayer to those of you in need.    
I cannot find words to adequately capture the experience so I must let it pass without putting pen to paper.  All I can say is that everyone should come here.  

Lunch is at Pizzeria Amalfi a few blocks away.  It’s a nice little place, just off the main tourist route.  The food is good and it is nice to sit and relax.  We are in a neighborhood with wide, tree lined streets and plenty of shops.  Adele searches for Roman sandals and running shoes and Vince and I get “football” shirts.  He is now an official member of the all red Scudari Ferrari team: I am donning the royal blue of Italia.  

We return to clean laundry!  Our host Jill volunteered her housekeeper to help us out with a “few Loads.” Little did she know that we needed to wash almost everything we have, she must think we are nuts arriving on vacation with backpacks full of dirty clothes.  How good it feels to have clean tee shirts again.

In our continued quest for the best gelato in Rome, Adele and I stop by Gelato Teatro just around the corner from our apartment.  It is a tiny place at the end of an alley and comes highly recommended by our hosts. The variety is incredible.  Adele orders Ginger and Lemon Cheesecake and I get Caffe and Sicilian Almond.  From the first bite we are hooked. This must be what heroin is all about.

When we return Adele volunteers to cook dinner.  She is more than excited to have the responsibility and takes to the task with earnest.  I must say she is a very good cook at a very young age.  With almost nothing to work with she ends up with “primia” of toasted bread covered in arugula and shaved Parmesan cheese, sprinkled with olive oil and a side of tomatoes. Plus a “secondo” of apples and green beans. Not bad for an eight year old, going on twenty-one.

To close out the day I get and email from the Cooking Vacations people letting me know they refuse to refund any money.  We now need to decide if we are going to sue them or not to try and re-coup the cost. 

Day Ninety-Six September 21st

The fresh market at Campo di Fiori is not to be missed.  Or so Teri and Adele tell me upon their return with bags of fresh vegetables, bread, pastas, cheese and olives.  Vince and I slept in.  After coffee and some schooling we ready to start our day.

Today we explore Ancient Rome.  The main events are the Forum, Palatino and the Colosseo.  Enough ruins to last a lifetime.  The crazy thing about Rome is that you just walk on over.  It is like stopping by a friend’s house for a visit.  

As a warm up we pass by the impressive Monumento a Vittorio Emmanuele II.  I have no idea what it is or why it’s there but “monumento” is certainly appropriate.  It towers high up in the air and is seemingly made entirely of white marble.  There are carved horses and statues of gods and columns and fountains.  The front it gated and there are guards watching out for trouble.  It must be on the tour bus circuit because there are thousands of people standing around snapping photos.  

Stretching out from there on either side of the Via dei Fori Imperiali sit the big three in all their glory.  First up is the Forum.  If you come here buy a combo ticket at the Forum instead of the Coliseum, the line is much more manageable. 

The Forum was the epicenter of Ancient Rome.  Coming in off the street you get the sense that the area has been in continual use pretty much forever.  There are buildings built on top of buildings that sit on top of other building and so on and so on.  Plus, they keep finding new really old ones whenever someone starts digging.  

I was here as a kid.  Back home I still have a piece of a column that I brought back with me from that trip.  I remember being able to just walk around back then and pick stuff up.  Like it was no big deal for a ten year old to walk off with a piece of Caesar’s house.  All these years I have wondered if it is real.  Being here today I now know it is.  My rock looks like all the other pieces lying around.  Only now they don’t let you walk off with one.   

Adele is fascinated when I tell her the story.  And she immediately starts picking up rocks.   We already have a small collection tucked into the nooks and crannies of our bags.  I have a feeling it will only get heavier as we move on.  

The Forum blends into the Palatino.  This is one of the wealthy neighborhoods from the olden days.  The Caesars all lived here: as did the Senators and wealthy citizens.  The ruins are scattered over one of Rome’s seven hills and are impressive even today.  It is interesting to see how everything fit together.

There are houses, temples, arenas, baths, areas for grapes and olives, public squares, arches and streets.  Everything modern Rome has today, really not much has changed after all these years.   

It is fun to walk on ground that people have been covering for so many generations and over so much time.  Back home our house is the first that we know of to sit on our land.  Sure a few Chumash Indians may have camped on the hillside at some point but it is nothing like this.  This is a place of spirits and souls from thousands upon thousands of years.  If you listen close enough you can still hear them whisper on the wind and in the rustle of the olive branches.

Lunch is mediocre: another one lost to a bad Lonely Planet recommendation.  Their guidebooks are proving to be really hit or miss here in Rome.   To make up for it we make a return trip to Gelato Teatro to share our joy with Teri and Vince.  Flavors for today are: Raspberry Garden Sage, Tiramisu, Hazelnut, Vanilla with Chocolate Chip, Pistachio, Walnut and Watermelon.  If we lived here, this place could become an issue!

Around 5p Teri heads out to get a haircut and the kids and I walk over to a glass bead shop to pick up the fixins for new Italian bracelets.  We are already wearing  seashells from Mexico and Viking beads from Norway.  The addition of a few Italian beads certainly adds some bling.

Adele whips up a tomato, fresh basil, garlic and olive sauce for our pasta while Vince and I string the beads.  Teri returns looking fabulously Italian claiming it may be the best haircut she has ever had.  We all agree she looks like a movie star.  

Life goes on like this in Rome.  We add it to the list: not as high up as NYC or Paris, maybe on par with Oslo and certainly ahead of Frankfurt.

Day Ninety-Seven September 22nd 

We need a semi-rest day so today get up late, have school and then head off to the Villa Borghese park with reservations at 1p for the Museo e Galleria Borghese.  

The park is a bit of a walk from the apartment and we enjoy peeking in shop windows and the warm sunshine of mid-morning.  It feels like we are the only tourists out and about as we wander down side streets and snake our way across town.  Then we notice a tour bus. 

When we turn a corner there is a mound of people scrambling about like ants.  Somewhere buried under what appears to be layers of tourists are the famous Spanish Steps.  I have no idea why they are famous: after all it is just a few flights of stairs leading to a street like any other.  

There are so many people standing around that it is just silly.  Most of them are trying to take pictures but you can’t really see the stairs with all the street vendors and people on them. The rest of them are eating ice cream, calling out to each other in various languages and taking up space. Climbing the steps is nearly impossible, especially with the stroller.   

We work up an appetite navigating the sea of tourists so we grab hotdogs from a street cart for the kids and head into the park.  It is so peaceful compared to the hustle and bustle of the city streets.   

The museum sits in the far corner of the park, set in an old Villa, housing the Borghese art collection.  Apparently the Cardinal was a ruthless collector back in his day sometime around 1600 and the Villa showcases the fruits of his efforts.  It may be one of the best museums we have been to on the trip.

The reservation allows a set number of people in at two hour intervals, plenty of time to take it all in.  The artwork sits on two floors, one focuses on sculptures, mosaics and frescos, the other on paintings.  Both are equally impressive.  With the kids we are through in about an hour.  If we were solo we probably would have used the full time allotment.

The museums in Rome are expensive for families.  For some reason they do not offer kids a half price rate (or free under five, like other cities).  Therefore we must pay full boat of all four of us.  If you are a member of the EU the rules are different and kids get in for free.  Someone should call the Italian consulate and tell them to stop nickel and diming US families.  They would see a lot more family business with a more liberal pricing policy.  Not that they need anyone else to visit.  

The afternoon is spent wandering around the park, renting bikes, exploring a kids reading room/play area and working off some pent up energy.  It is a great place to spend the day.

By 4p or so we are wandering down Via Vittorio Veneto, a high-end hotel and shopping street, sort of like our Rodeo or Fifth Ave, in New York.  It is funny to see doormen.  We have been out of that world for so long now that it seems foreign and otherworldly.  

It reminds me that I have come along way in a short amount of time.   A year ago I was on a first name basis with the staff of the Trump International on Columbus Circle.  For the past decade, I logged over well over one hundred thousand frequent flyer miles per year and navigated business travel with comfort and privilege.  I travelled on a wavelength well above the masses.  

Travel was a means to an end, necessary and tolerated.  To others, on the surface it was glamorous and exciting but underneath the long flights and constant stress take their toll.   I don’t miss that life.  Now when I see men in suits getting out of chauffeured limos and rushing into meetings I just stand, pushing the stroller, watching them pass by, and smile.  There but for the grace of God go I…

Now that we are officially main lining gelato our stop at Gelato Teatro comes none too soon.  We have been discussing today’s flavors since we woke up.  Adele gets Lavender Flower and White Peach and I get Pistachio and Pure Chocolate.  Wham!  All is right with the world.   

Dinner is home cooked with local ingredients.  Afterwards we find Bilbo Baggins battling giant spiders and wandering off the path.  Another excellent day.
Day Ninety-Eight September 23rd

We know fountains.  Fountains, oceans, seas, fjords, rivers, rain, Pellegrino, really any water-based thing out there we have intimate first hand knowledge of.  The Fontana di Trevi is supposed to be an epicenter, the grand daddy of them all. It is an entire piazza of carved marble dedicated to Neptune.

Every tourist in Rome is here.  Actually, I think all of the tourist in Italy may be here.  It is so crowded that we can’t even push the stroller.  We maneuver around and push our way towards the front elbowing up to the railing.  It is fun, sort of like sport.

When you actually see the thing it is impressive.  Water spills out everywhere.  Legend has it that if you throw a coin in you will return to Rome someday so everyone is tossing coins from all directions.   We stand and snap a photo or two then move on.  There are way too many people for us.

Teri and the kids are headed to a children’s museum and I am off in the opposite direction to the train station to pickup the tickets to Salerno. Before we split we have lunch in a great little restaurant packed with statues.  

The main terminal is a half hour walk and worlds away.  The area around it is sort of seedy as you would expect but it is masked by the grandeur of ruins.  The homeless and hustlers sit beneath marble statues and ancient aquaducts.  Cheap hotels are in five hundred year old buildings.  

The line for EuroStar Italia is manageable by Italian standards, lasting only about forty-five minutes.  It is a good thing to do without kids.  It would feel like an eternity with them in tow.  The station is very busy with people coming and going: it’s a healthy mix of tourists and locals seemingly tolerant of each other. The Polizia are there in force in the event they are not.  

After a long walk home I find myself in the middle of a religious parade.  They entire congregation is marching through the streets behind four pallbearers carrying a bust of some saint or monk.  The priest is preaching into a portable microphone that is connected to big speakers held up on poles by parishioners.  It looks like a scene from a movie. 

The parade lasts forever.  They keep walking around the block and then returning to the main square just down from our apartment.  This morning the police came and took away all the cars parked there so the church could set up chairs for the outside service.  Now people have shown up looking for their cars only to find chairs full of old ladies and several separate arguments flare up around the edges as they come to realize their cars are gone.  The whole thing is pretty chaotic.  All the while the service continues unabated.  

Remember the computer?  It is North Carolina.  A customs agent emailed us asking for paperwork.  They will not release it in the States without proof we bought it there and we don’t owe any kind of import tax.  This required printing, signing and scanning documents.  A task that is near impossible when you travel off the grid.

The kids return singing the praises of the Children’s Museum and clamoring about gelato.  It is that time of day.  Today is a mix of milk chocolate, strawberry, coconut, basil and walnut. As regulars our portions are getting a bit bigger each time and the server’s smile that much broader.  

Tonight we try a local Neapolitan place around the corner for pizza and pasta.  Naples pizza is between the ultra thin Roman crusts and the thicker crusts up north.  It’s a good meal in a comfortable atmosphere.  Vince spends most of the time running up and down the sidewalk avoiding his dinner and Adele is in heaven with a pizza without cheese!

Day Ninety-Nine September 24th

Today is our last full day in Rome.  Our time here went by so fast and we are sad to see it end.  It’s raining so there is no need to hurry this morning.  Instead we have an extra long school session and begin the process of packing and organizing for the next leg.  

Our main sight today is just across the Tiber from our apartment.  The Castel Sant’Angelo is a two thousand year old mausoleum built for the emperor Hadrian.  It is an imposing structure, made even more so by the rain, that sits just down from the Vatican and promises excellent views of the city.  

It is dark and mysterious.  To get to the top there is a tunnel/pathway that winds along the outer wall, dimly lit and down right spooky.  The kids jump at ghost noises.  At the mid point they let you out onto an outer walkway for the first view of the city.  It is great fun looking at our apartment and all the places we have seen over the past few days.

Then they take us back inside to tour some really bad paintings of old kings and Popes before we climb a few more flights of stairs to the top section on the roof.  Here the view really is incredible.  

Me: “Look kids, there’s the Vatican!”
Vince: “Mannequins?”
Me:  “No the Vatican, see the big dome?”
He then runs around pointing to all the domes of the city.
Vince: “Dad a Mannequin, look, look, lots of mannequins all over the place!”

On the way down we find stacks of cannon balls, suits of armor, swords and pistols.  In the mid-point we veer off onto a secret passageway that connects the Vatican city to the Castel.  Over the years when ever the Vatican came under attack the Popes would use it to flee to safety.  

When we come back over the river we stop in to a shop that I have been walking by all week.  The owner sits hand making mosaic tiles.  These are modern day works of art based on applying the ancient process to modern interpretation.  He has a dark side of the moon album cover next to a replica from Pompeii.  We watch him work for a while and he explains the process and the different valuations. The finer the tile pieces the higher the cost. Adele is totally into it.

For dinner there is much confusion since we left the guidebook at home and have no recommendation.  We wander around looking for someplace to no avail.  In the end, we go back to the same place we went to last night and call it a day. 

To end the week on a high note Adele and Teri head over and then bring back one more round of gelato.  Today we have caramel, peach and something called trofilino (?), it’s some kind of chocolate mix.  If you come to Rome, go out of your way to go to Gelato Teatro, on your first day as it is habit forming, I promise it will not disappoint.  

And we really recommend staying in Jill and Stephan’s apartment instead of a hotel.  The comfort and freedom it provides can’t be beat. Plus, they are some of the nicest people we have met.

Tomorrow we go south to Ravello, Amalfi, Capri, Pompeii, and our first week with someone meeting us from home!  We can’t wait to see our Aunt Denise.
It is hard to believe that nine years have passed.  When we wake up on 9.11 we stop and remember 2001 and send out our thoughts and prayers.

Day Eighty-Six September 11th 

Up to a warm Tuscan sunshine.  We wander around looking for breakfast eventually finding a plate of meat and cheese (the same as last evening) some stale cereal, a bowl with random fruit set on a table and some flavored yogurts from the supermarket.  Trying to figure out the coffee maker is near impossible.  The tables are still in disarray from dinner and there is no one about for the first half hour or so.  We simply fend for ourselves and try to make the best of it.  

By late morning we move to our new room. Finally, I also get the password to access the Internet.  The one they gave me last night was incorrect.

Sitting on a bench outside the “pizza oven and barbeque” area because this is the only place I can get a signal, by the way the barbeque is filthy and has been turned over to the cats, I discover we have paid roughly 2.5 times the amount it would cost to book the same week online.  Worst fears confirmed.

Then we start to look around.  Everything here is shoddy.  The “winery” sits behind a locked fence towards the back of the house, all the machinery sits idle, disconnected, propped up and leaning together.  Below, sitting in a flat outside the fence, are bundles of wine bottles, covered in dust and dirt, clearly untouched in ages.

The pool is unusable for a four year old.  There is no way for him to get in or out.  The tiles around the edge are loose in places and most of the furniture is old and broken in some way.  The umbrellas have pieces of notebook paper stuck in the stands to keep them from tipping over.   They do anyway and blow into the pool almost taking out Adele in the process.

Then we check into our new room.  There are holes in several windows, big ones cut in for some air conditioning system used at some point in the past but never fixed. The unit sits idle in the corner taking up space, cord and connects draped about.  The shower is moldy and the oven is covered with pieces of old food, the carpet is stained, the fake plant is covered in dust, the springs show through the worn pillows on the sofa.   The kitchen is completely bare: the fridge is not turned on, there is not ice or cold water, no spices, salt or pepper, not even olive oil.  The pictures on the walls are faded faux art posters from 1996 placed in plastic frames.  The television is a 12-inch model from years ago, my computer has a larger screen.  There is no Internet access from here since the wireless only works very near the “office.” It is not for the faint of heart and is uncomfortable in every way. You don’t want to take off your shoes.

Starving, we try and walk to the “local village”.  It is 7k away.  There is a place at the base of the hill but the nice women working in the kitchen tells us it is very expensive and she does not recommend it.  That is until she realizes we don’t have a car then she shrugs her shoulders and wishes us luck. Clearly we need a car.  

This is insanity coming full circle as we had a discussion with Lauren, the women from Boston, asking if we could keep the car we had and the pick up in Florence for Sunday, giving us mobility to settle in but they said no we don’t need one and that we needed to be picked up yesterday.  This means we now need to spend another thousand dollars for a car so we can get away from this place during the week. There is nothing in walking distance. 

Not knowing what else to do we talk to Fabrizio.  He refuses to address our concerns about paying 2.5 times the going rate and appears shocked at what the folks in Boston charged us for last evening.  Even he scoffs at the price for the room.  He tells us there is nothing he can do for the rates of the room and the classes but that he will agree to cancel the driver for the “eight hour driving tour” since we will now have a car and we don’t need a driving tour.  He says he will take the 400E he would pay the driver and use it to rent us a car.  He also suggests that “maybe there has been a mistake in the billing” the “maybe we have been charged too much for the cooking and the children” and that he will check with Lauren.  Maybe it is a way to save face and to get everything back on track.  I have no idea.
When we do some quick math and send an email to Lauren in Boston outlining our concerns with the room and suggesting a partial refund she refuses and becomes increasing hostel.  Apparently they have not heard of customer service.  It is a very bad situation.  We have clearly been taken advantage of and for a lot of money.  

There is a welcome dinner that is supposed to be “a tour of the winery and a wine tasting.”  There is neither.  They serve Campari and soda in plastic cups and finger food at the “pool house.”  Again, there are no drinks for kids and no alternatives for them to eat, if they refuse the same meat and cheese from last night and breakfast or the items made by a class earlier in the day, they go hungry! Melon balls and cured meats just don’t work for four year olds.

Dinner is very odd.  We sit with the Australian women again and a couple from Dana Point that arrived today.  The host Fabrizio joins our table and hovers over the new arrivals, retelling the tales about wine making from our lunch the day before.   There is one other table with three guest couples and then two other tables: one with the staff of the nearby stable and the other with their children.  None of us can figure out what they are all doing there.  They all keep to themselves and don’t mingle.  The least they could do ask if we want to include ours kids at the kid table.  Instead they sit with us.

Vincent tries desperately to play with the other kids.  It is almost painful to watch him try and connect as he wants to play so badly. The other little boy’s mother does not seem to want her son to stray too far.  

At one point I find Vince on the stairs to our room, just sitting there on a step, head held in his hands, almost in tears.  When I ask him why he explains that he was trying to play cars when the other little boys mother came and “hurt him on the arm when she grabbed him to come away, he was crying.”  When I tell him these things can happen sometimes he looks up confused and hurt with a look that says, “but mommies don’t hurt kids”.  It is heartbreaking.  Then to add to it all he says, “I just want to be friends.”  I have tears as I write this.

Day Eighty-Seven September 12th

After another breakfast, the same as yesterday, I head off to find Fabrizio to take me over to the airport to pick up the car so we can get out of here for the day.  He is beside himself and unable to speak to me.  Apparently he read our email outlining a few of the issues with the room (the holes in the windows, springs in the couch and food in the stove to name a few) and now he refuses to speak to us because we have insulted his house and in turn his family.  He actually brushes me off with his hand and says he must not speak to me about these things any more as it is too painful for him.  I ask for someone else and he points me to a woman down in the kitchen. 

Regarding the ride to the airport he lets me know he will call a taxi since he does not want to ride with me due to our email on the room condition.  It is unbelievable.   We agree on an 11:30 pick up.

At 11:30 Fabrizio suddenly wants to drive me over, I can only assume it is to avoid paying the taxi fare.  When we get to the car rental counter I ask if he would like to charge the car or pay cash to which he says he can do neither.  I offer to wait for him to go to an ATM and he refuses claiming he does not have any money.  He gives me “his word” that he will get me the money in cash or charge back 400E to my credit card (350E for the driving tour and 50E for the unused airport transfer) as soon as we get back to the villa.  

Meanwhile Lauren from Boston sends an email responding to our concerns and suggestions with the following:

“Subject: Cooking Vacations has the right to and will remove you from the Program without refund.”  You would not believe the email so I will spare you the detail.  To think that this is their response to the issues we have with the condition of the room and to our suggested compromise on the package rate.  It is all really insane. 

I cannot believe that this is how they handle customer complaints.  They seem to be getting more and more aggressive with each email so we stop the correspondence.  The situation is clearly impacting all of us, including the kids. 

By the time I get back from picking up the rental car, Teri is sitting in disbelief, incredibly uncomfortable and near tears, Adele is in tears and sobbing sitting by the bags and Vince is visible concerned.  Enough is enough, we need to leave.  

It is very difficult to actually pack the car and get out as Fabrizio follows our every move and aggressively tries to stop us.  He keeps waving his cell phone and dialing the woman in Boston, then pushing the phone at me demanding I speak to her. When I tell him that Lauren should call our cell if she wants to talk about the situation it only gets worse.  It seems that once he realizes we are actually leaving he panics.  By the time we get the car doors locked and start down the drive my hands are actually shaking.  What a way to spend a summer vacation.

Without reservations for the night we head to a Tourist Office just outside of Florence in Fiesole to try and find a room.  They have none but recommend a new hotel just down the hill that recently opened. Apparently they may have a few rooms since they are so new.  So with nowhere else to go and daylight hours fading fast we head over with fingers crossed.

The entrance looks like every other Tuscan Villa on the block so naturally we pass by two or three times before we actually find the place.  When we do manage to locate and enter the gates and start up the drive towards the main house our frame of mind immediately improves.  By the time our tour of the main house is over and we have selected a room we know we have found a home for a few days.   

This has been some day: the hardest thus far.  They say adversity makes you stronger.  Today, I am not so sure…

Day Eight-Eight September 13th

Welcome to Il Salviatino!  

The Villa has been a private residence until the recent owner upgraded the place and turned it into a five star hotel.  It has 45 rooms, all unique and different ranging from ours (the smallest) to a grand suite with a fireplace so big you can stand in it.  The library is too much to try and capture with words.  The dining area is perched above a formal garden and overlooks the lights of Florence.  The swimming pool sits down a hillside tucked away in a private valley.  It is the complete opposite of the last few days and a much needed refuge to all the chaos.

We spend the morning settling in and re-energizing.  The kids have school; I catch up on the journal and Teri books much of our upcoming Turkey trip.  By mid-afternoon Teri and the kids head off to a park while I tackle more bills and logistics back home. 

It is a day spent trying to forget about the cooking school fiasco and shaking off the trauma of the experience.  Honestly, it was all so shocking to the system that we are sort of pacing through the day reviewing the last 48 hours and wondering what happened.  You know the feeling when someone takes full advantage of you, knows that you know they are doing it, and then does it anyway? We got taken for a ride and it feels terrible.  

I have dinner with Vince on the terrace while Teri and Adele get in-room service.  Vin and I play with magnets and have fun sitting under a big tarp during a hard rainstorm.  It is nice to be sitting warm and dry and enjoying the time together.  At the end of the day we all watch the US Open and drift off to sleep.  

Best to be here more so than anywhere else.

Day Eighty-Nine September 14th

After breakfast on the veranda, it is oh so civilized here, school starts with a new class taught by dad: gym.  I figure some organized exercise might be in order to burn off some energy and keep everyone fit (including me!).  We start with jump rope and move on to various forms of long jump, high jump and leaping in general.  Vince gets to be the coach, one of his favorite things in life, and Adele gets to jump, one of her favorite things.  For the two-hour class all is well.

Except for Teri who has been on the phone dealing with the computer (remember the new computer stuck in customs in Koln?  It finally arrived, about five days behind us but then our friends left for vacation so it got delayed again.  They just got back and now we need to figure out logistics. 

Apparently we cannot get it to Italy with any certainty.  The mail is so unpredictable that everyone recommends against using it.  At one point we are considering taking a train back to Stuttgart to pick it up until we learn it is something like 14 hours to get there.  In the end, we decide to try and send it back to the States so our friend Denise who meeting us in Ravello at the end of the month can bring it back over to us in person.  

If it gets delayed in customs on the return to the States we will pass the thirty-day return window with Apple, miss Denise’s flight and end up with a computer that we cannot seem to get hold of sitting idle in LA.  It takes the better part of the day to figure all of this out.  Perhaps it was not meant to be.  

The pool, or should I say pools, here are pretty spectacular.  While Teri struggles with FedEx, we lounge around for the mid-afternoon stretch, have some lunch, stage underwater swimming contests, work on our floating and try to relax.

The hotel has set us up with Uffizi reservations for Adele and Teri at 5:15p so we all load up into the car and drive downtown.  On a side note, the hotel washed our rental car for us because they noticed some dust and dirt and they thought it best. Not once did they wash it, but twice because it rained after they washed in the first time so they thought it needed a second rinse.  I swear to you this is true.  We are ready to move in. 

It is surprisingly easy to drive downtown, just about ten minutes or so.  And by shear luck we land a parking space right along the Arno just a quick hop from the museum.  In no time the “chicas” are viewing art and the “chicos” are sitting in the main square chasing pigeons.  I ask you, who had more fun?   

In less than an hour, after all we did the Louvre in two hours flat, the “chicas” bump into us by chance and we all decide to find a place for a quick bit.  If you come to Florence stop by the Cantinetta dei Verrazzano just off the Piazza and tell the waiter you’re a Yankee fan.  Then run and duck for cover.  Apparently the Red Sox nation is alive and well in Florence: so says the man whose mother is a native Bostonian father native Florentine.  He was born in Italy but you would never know it as he easily converses in English (yes, with a Boston accent), Italian and French.  The food is great, conversation lively and atmosphere just what you need after the hustle and bustle of the main square.

From here we head “home” to the Villa on the hill and take advantage of our wireless connection for Skype calls to family back in the States.  It is always good to be reminded that despite the wrongs and injustices people inflict upon you that life goes on and you really need to put them behind and move on.  Leave the negative energy back at cooking school.  

After all you only go around once in life, might as well make the best of it.  

Day Ninety September 15th

Breakfasts are becoming one of the highlights of the day.  All of the hotels include breakfast with the room and the meals are top notch.  Today starts with pancakes, fresh fruit, yogurts, eggs, a plate of salami and cheese, fresh baked bread and strong coffee.  Ah, so good to be an Italian!  It will be tough going back to Cheerios with skim milk let me tell you.

Sadly, we must leave.  The service here has been some of the best we have experienced in all of our years of travel. In fact, the overall experience here makes Il Salviatino one of the best hotels we have ever stayed in.  There is no doubt in my mind that we will return.  If you ever get the chance to stay do not miss it.

It is a beautiful day for driving.  The funny thing about the GPS is that after awhile you blindly follow it even if instinct tells you otherwise.  We knew the town of Portonovo was almost due east of Florence and on the coast.  So why then, when we are cruising at 130K towards Bologna, due north and inland, don’t you say to the GPS, “are you sure?”  Maybe it’s the English voice that is getting me, after all she is so polite when giving directions and she tries so hard with the long Italian street names.

At around 5p, after 3 hard hours of travel, we turn down a narrow single lane road following a sign to Portonovo.  This one is in the middle of the country.  It seems a bit out of whack that Napoleon would build a seaside fort in the suburban Bologna. We are over 200k in the wrong direction.  What do you do?

It’s 5p everyone is hungry and getting grouchy by the minute, we have nowhere to stay and the prospects are dim.  It is getting dark earlier here so by the time we re-assess and decide to head towards the coast night is falling.  6p turns to 7p turns to 8p and we are still driving.

Napoleon was a mad man. Every time he conquered someplace he gave it to one of his family members for safekeeping.  At some point he built a fort in Portonovo on the Adriatic Sea to protect the town of Ancona from the British of all people. Apparently they always got under his skin.  

Luckily for us the fort is now a hotel.  When we leave the highway and make the final descent to the sea with have no idea where we are or what lies around us.  All we know is that we are clearly in the middle of nowhere.  No phones, no lights, no motorcars.  

There are big cannons guarding the main entrance, back light for effect and dramatic as can be when driving up out of total darkness.  It is magical.  There are big thick walls with little windows closed off with shutters.  A main room in the center is surrounded by breezy interior walkways.  Everything is made of stone. The place was built in 1803 based on plans designed by Michelangelo.  All that and the ocean’s so close, the waves so loud, that you feel like you are sleeping on the beach.    

Adele and I try and see the ocean and get our bearing but it is too dark to make much out beyond the break.  We go to sleep having no idea what we are in for.

Day Ninety-One September 16th

It is sunny when we rise.  Even before the buffet we rush to check out the beach.  It is glorious.  That’s right, glorious!  Rocks worn by the sea lead down to clear blue water.  No sand here for the meek and mild, just miles of rocks and ocean.  The bay is perfect.  Having grown up across the street from one I appreciate a good bay when I see one.  This one is perfect.  Think Cinnamon Bay on St. Johns only with rocks, the warm, salty Adriatic Sea and Italian hills spilling down to the shore.  I cannot get over it.    

We take full advantage of the buffet (as always) and then go to school for an hour or so, but all the while our minds are at the beach.  By 10:30a we are swimming.  The salt content is so high here you can taste it when you lick your arm.  Plus, you float so easily!  

The rocks are something: some flat, others round, many that look like eggs, a few agates tucked in here and there.  We spend hours checking them out.  The flat ones build excellent fort walls to protect the crabs from the waves.  The long oval ones are great for massaging backs.  There are skippers that easily jump half a dozen times and small pieces of tile from the “olden days” mixed in now and again. By noon my pockets are so full of “keepers” I cannot stand.  

Meals are pretty uncomplicated as we are in Umbria, the “slow food” capital of Italy. This means that almost everything is grown on the hillsides and caught in the bay. Then it is prepared with the utmost care and doled out slowly over time.  Lunch can take hours, dinner even longer. 

Since we are here mid-week in September, no one else is save for a few locals.  The kids can run freely, watched over by everyone on the beach.  We are able to sit and enjoy our meal while they run and wade.  It is nice and peaceful.

After lunch we take one more dip before going back to nap.  Adele is swimming really well.  We actually head out about 25-30 yards off shore for the first time, far out by any standard.  She does the crawl back in, nice and relaxed, never worried, treading when she needs to.  It the first time she is actually swimming and she is beyond excited.  So am I knowing she can handle herself in the water. A milestone.  When she wins the 200 fly at the 2020 games I will be quick to tell the world that it all started here in the Adriatic.  

Vincent befriends the Italians.  There is a pack of locals, probably three generations  deep and maybe four families wide, that finds him irresistible.  The elders take him under their wing and help him catch crabs to put into his little plastic cup.  He squeals with excitement while they laugh with sheer joy.  Both sides talk a mile a minute neither having any idea what the other is saying.  Vince is naming the crabs, talking about Lightning McQueen and telling them all about how the crabs can come on the trip around the world.  They all nod, shout out “Vincenzo!’ and clap hands.  

For dinner we go to the other place.  Not to be outdone, it is certainly as good as the first.  This time we start with fresh mussels in white wine, lemon and garlic, just like when I was a kid on Long Island.  My kids cannot believe we used to pick them when I was little on Sunday afternoons right from our beach on the Long Island Sound.  That’s followed by a truffle and fresh catch risotto.  The sea breeze blows gently in and the waves lap the shore.  Really, why ever eat out again?  Can it get any better?

After a tough day we end up exploring the fort with Vincent’s headlamp looking for crabs and making sure the cannons are kept at bay.   If Napoleon only knew…

Day Ninety-Two September 17th

It’s raining again.  I cannot believe that we are finally on the perfect beach to burn off a few days and relax for a bit and it is raining.  What have done to offend the weather gods so? 

Let’s be honest, not much can slow us down if we sense a good day to drive.  Besides the hotel is supposed to be full this evening so its at best only a 50% chance we will clear stand by.  By the time we swing by the desk to see if they have room for us for one more night we already have a full tank of espresso and one foot out the door.  

The front desk guy hems and haws.  He frowns, shakes his head, points at the computer, shakes his head some more, stands up and shakes his head, actually slaps his head full on with the palm of his hand and then disappears to the rear office. We stand in silence.  After several minutes of hushed conversation he emerges and quietly whispers, “it’s OK, but we only have 53.”  We stare back blankly. It is like he is speaking in some kind of code.  His eyebrows dance up and down.

Last night we were in room 50, right next to the office, so we can only imagine what room 53 is like.  He waves us on to follow him, “we see if it works”.  Then we all walk into the restaurant.  Thinking he is going to put us in the kitchen, I immediately start to think up excuses to rescue us.  He holds the door until we are all inside, then he marches us out the other side and down a long narrow stone corridor we have been using to get to the beach.

Suddenly he stops in front of Napoleons suite.  I have no idea why he decides to gift us a night in the best suite in the house at the same cost as our small little one room next to the office but he does and it is unbelievable.  We have two big rooms and separate bath, television with English kids programming, and separate beds for Adele and Vince.  All this on a rainy day when staying inside is inevitable.  

By the look on our faces and the shrieks of joy from the kids, he knows that we know and appreciate what he has done for us.  He never breaks form. When I confirm it is for the same price as the other he almost half smiles, just for a second, and then he shrugs his shoulders saying, “yes”.

I draw the math card today and Adele and I start in on the multiplication table.  It is so much fun to watch others discover something.  She dutifully writes out 2-12 along the top and sides, then we start along the horizontal ending at 144 and then finally we back fill sections.  Each time she fills in a row and starts to see how the numbers form patterns and relate to one another she gets a rush of excitement.  It is as if she is the first to discover a great secret about something she really loves and it makes it all the better.  

After school we need to run into the city of Ancona to pick up cash for the apartment in Rome.  The payment wire was too difficult to pull off on the road so we need cash when we check in tomorrow.  Unfortunately, with the ATM limits on International withdrawals, it has been difficult stock piling.  If you head over seas make sure you up your daily limits before leaving the states.

The first two machines don’t work.  This is common in Italy but we are still concerned.  Finally, on the third try, we find one that does.  My card is working but Teri’s is still out of commission.  For the record, we spent almost an hour on the phone with BOA two days ago and they assured us it would all be in working order.  I can’t stand that bank.  

Ancona offers little except a boat ride to Croatia if you are so inclined.  We are not but we are hungry and we do find a little out of the way pizza join with very good extra thin and crispy slices.  This is Roman style pizza.

Once back at the fort Adele and I are determined to swim, even under cloud cover.  We find the water to be so warm that we are actually warmer swimming than standing on the beach.  Once we get in others soon follow, kind of like they were waiting for someone to take the first plunge.  

By the time we get back Vince is literally bouncing off the walls: he has so much energy.  I eventually get him outside where he just runs and runs in circles around the patio by the beach.  It is crazy.  For a full half hour all he does is run.  You would think that he would be worn out come dinnertime, but no, he is still as manic as ever, only now he is tired as well, always a dangerous combination.

To thank our hotel for the upgrade we decide to eat in the restaurant onsite and drop some coin in the kitty.  The food here is excellent.  Lemon sole, a mixed fresh catch grill and pastas for the kids.  They even have lobsters on ice, watching us eat and still moving around if you look close enough.  Vince holds out until dessert thanks to the iPad and the Backyardagins.  In the end we all begin to melt.  

Despite the rain it has been a good beach day and a most pleasant stay at the fort.  We really love Portonovo and hope to return someday, but as of tomorrow all roads lead to Rome…
“We don’t build cars, we build dreams.”  -  Enzo Ferrari 

Day Seventy-Nine September 4th

Goodbyes are always hard, especially when you don’t really know when you will see someone again.  For Adele this has been an especially good time as she and Mira have been playing together pretty much non-stop since we arrived.  It has been nice for her just to be a kid again.  Staying and viewing how folks live the day-to-day life here has been a great experience for all of us.  

You realize that where and how you stay really shapes your view of the place you are visiting: the apartment in Paris, our HOW and camping, the hotel stays and now staying with friends in country.  All very different from one another: all impacting us in different ways.

It proves you need to think about how you are going to tackle travel and the type of experiences you want.  I think cities are best served via apartments (if you have a week or more) and/or hotels (for shorter stints).  When exploring the countryside camping is best hands-down.  It’s a great way to cover distance and get a big picture.  For immersion into culture and language stay with friends or in cities and hang for a while without pressure to move on or do anything.  Here you need to put the agenda aside and let the days take on a life of their own.  We like them all and are thankful we have the opportunity for such variety.

After our goodbyes we load up and move on.  Always moving on.  Our drive is a long one stretching from roughly Stuttgart to Lago di Garda.  Everything moves along at around 140kph until we hit Innsbruck.  Then the bumper-to-bumper traffic begins.  

For some reason (we think it’s a tollbooth on the Italian side) the traffic is backed up for hours on end. We crawl along in second gear seemingly forever inching our way into the Dolomites.  The borders come and go, license plates change from G to A to I, speed limits and protocol go up and down. All of it is in three quarter time.

Around 6p, after seven hours in the car, we bail on Lago di Gardo saving the rest of the trip for tomorrow and stop off in Bolzano set in a deep valley way up in the Dolomites.  We are at the very top of Italy looking down from on high.  Out hotel, Stadt Hotel Citta, sits on the corner of a cobblestoned square complete with cafes, a statue, a grand fountain and plenty of Italians.  Finding the place seems crazy to an American from So Cal but the Italians take no notice of someone driving on the insanely narrow pedestrian walk streets.  What’s a few wrong turns between friends?  

This is our first night of living our “hotel” lifestyle so we do what anyone would and bring everything we own in with us.  It takes two main trips and one or two more before nights end to get settled.  It’s clear we need a new packing strategy.  Vince loves hotels so he is talking non-stop and moving constantly.  Adele is crashing from the long drive and once again leaving friends and moving on.  Teri and I just sort of sit and try and get our bearings, shuffling from bag to bag looking for stuff.

A big change going forward will be meals.  We pretty much need to eat three meals a day out since we no longer have refrigeration and/or storage space.  On the surface this may seem like a luxury to some but when you have kids and are used to setting your own schedule it is not as exciting as it seems.  Plus, it is much more expensive.

At Lonely Planets recommendation we head out to our hotel’s restaurant on the square.  It is so good to be back in the city.  People are strolling arm in arm. Couples and families, children and old folks all mix together creating a collage of daily life here.  Drama is everywhere: in facial expressions, cadence and volume of conversation, dress and appearance.  It is a comfortable, relaxed atmosphere, one that we intend to enjoy to the fullest.

Day Eighty September 5th

The unplanned places we encounter along the way tend to be some of the best, probably due to the surprise factor.  The Messner Mountain Museum is definitely one of these places.  Any serious armchair mountaineer knows of Reinhold Messner.  The holder of many “firsts” including the summit of Everest without oxygen, a feat considered impossible at the time.  It seems he is actually Italian and that he cut his climbing teeth here in the Dolomites outside of Bolzano.  

To celebrate climbing and the highest peaks around the world he has built five museums set in historic castles up in this neck of the woods.  The one we are at this morning is his centerpiece sitting just outside of town.  It is fantastic.  Thought out the rooms of the old castle and peppered though out the grounds are relics of his climbs and commentary on the expeditions.

There are oil paintings of peaks and climbers, prayer flags and cairns, statues, symbols and mythology from the seven summits, an extensive photo collection, music and burning incense.  These are all interwoven to tell a story of truly epic adventure.  

Like the Vikings, Kon Tiki and Fram this museum speaks to us and flames the desire for adventure.  By lunchtime Adele and Vince are climbing rocks and discussing repelling technique, Teri is recounting her Rainer summit and I am eyeing my Vasques wondering if they are up for some hard-core altitude.  Perhaps Nepal will find its way back on the itinerary.

The drive south into Italy reminds us of the fjords only with land in the ravens instead of water.  The Dolomites are a beautiful range, well worth exploring someday.  They are lighter in color than the Alps, not quite as steep but still big and broad just the same, almost creating a buffer from the North, shielding Italy from the rest of Europe, or vice versa.

Our destination this evening is the town of Sirmione on Lago di Garda.  Sirmione is known as an historic, ancient town on an islet tucked into the lake where Italians come to relax and vacation.  How great does that sound?  It’s is all going along fine until we get to the part about checking in with the police before we enter the “old section” that is “limited to hotel and pedestrian” traffic.  

There is a barrier blocking the drawbridge, barely visible behind all the people.  It is 2p on a Sunday and the town is teaming with people.  They are everywhere.  I cannot express the intense fear and disbelief that accompanies a nod from the policeman as he waves us on.  No kidding, even as I write this, I still cannot believe he told us to drive head on into the crowd.

Forget about how narrow the streets are; forget about the labyrinth of blind twists and turns, the tunnels passing through buildings and an impossible to understand blinking traffic light system.   Forget about the cars coming at you, thousands of people pressed against the walls for fear of being crushed, the baby carriages taking up too much room on the sides and the old people walking obliviously down the center.  

Think of an “intermediate” sized Skoda (we really should have tried to squeeze into the Fiat 500 again), with German plates (thankfully, since they assume the Germans will just run them over) a failing GPS system (the roads are too small and narrow to get a proper signal), a really bad map (from the tourist office used as a walking guide) and us, nervously inching forward.

It was the worse drive of my life and an excruciating ten minutes that I hope never, ever to repeat.

When we get out on the other side of hell we find our Hotel Olivia, a pretty postcard of a retreat at the far end of the island.  The lobby is markedly Italian with marble floors and columns in greens, pinks and yellows.  The average age of the people spread out on the white and red furniture is about 110 years old, save for a few middle age men with their mothers.   It’s all very trippy, like some kind of weird 1950s Italian movie.  

The best thing to do in these situations is swim.  So we head to the pool to let out some steam and try and relax.  It is deathly quiet with a bunch of old brown (perhaps they prefer “golden”) people that look like they have been here forever.  I feel like we are on display.  

These are the old “golden” people that you may want to be like when you grow up. Someone once referred to them as raisins, a perfect description for the occasion.  They are so incredibly tan, wear heavy gold bracelets and chains, big baggy boxer swim trunks and hats to block the sun.  They clearly don’t give a dam what anyone thinks about anything.  They just stand around in the cold Jacuzzi and talk in hushed tones for hours on end, hands gesturing and moving about, occasionally laughing.  They are genuinely content passing by the days and hours at the Hotel Olivia.

At 5p the pool guy rings a bell and people appear out of nowhere.  It is almost comical to see everyone line up, grab a cup and a biscuit and then sit and chat at the poolside tables.  They all move from lying horizontally on the lounge chairs to sitting upright at tables.  Its weird and we have no idea what is going on, but everyone seems to be there. I assume coffee, the kids are running around looking for ice cream and I think Teri is counting on a glass of the local red.  Instead we get tepid English Breakfast.  

Dinner is fun.  We find our restaurant just off the main drag and end up sitting outside in a courtyard next to a lemon tree.  It is a meal of tomato and mozzarella, pasta and the local catch of the day.  Teri samples the local wines, Adele and I continue our quest of the perfect water “with gas” and even Vince gets in the game with an affinity for the local “flat” water.  All is well.

We are home to bed around 10p, early for Italy, for school starts tomorrow.

Day Eighty-One September 6th

Up to a very slow day.  They have a nice buffet here with good strong coffee, much needed to fight off the clouds and rain this morning.  Seems the weather has followed us.  Not so good for our pool plans.

The kids start school.  We are home schooling both Adele and Vince and are going to start with an hour or so each morning and see how it goes.  Teri has the first shift so I head down to the lobby to write up journal notes.  Two hours later the kids emerge full of energy and excitement.  They both love school.  

Not much else happens.  We wander around the town, it is much more enjoyable on foot, ducking into places for both lunch and dinner.  There is some pool time between the rainy spells and some running around and playing in the front yard.

We do learn that the new computer has actually arrived in Germany but our friend is now off on vacation until the 11th so we have no way to resend it anywhere. We are beginning to feel that logistics are near impossible on the road and shipping anything is a potential fiasco.

It is slow day that just fades back into night.

Day Eighty-Two September 7th

Today is much the same as yesterday.  The weather is unchanged with clouds and some rain now and again.  We have decided to move on tomorrow, several days early, to try and find sunshine and a more kid-oriented hotel.  Without the pool there is nothing for them to do here. 

After school we all walk over to explore some ruins at the very point of the peninsula.  It turns out this is the largest private residence uncovered from the early Roman times.  It stretches out, expanding around each corner and falling down into the sea.  The upper section, a vast flat area on the top of a hill, is actually the main floor of the original villa.  As we wander down we go through porticos, bedrooms, kitchens, support structures, pathways, all kinds of chambers, columns and staircases.  It ignites the imagination.

Adele and Vince pose as statues, climb the rock walls, search for yet to be discovered “artifacts” along the stone pathways, pick olives from ancient trees and dream of being the family of the original owners.  We discuss what life must have been like in those times, the good and the bad, given them a real life history lesson.  These home school field trips will be tough to beat!

In the evening we find a comfortable out of the way local place for a quick meal.  Vincent sits outside on the step “performing” and getting his photo taken by people passing by.  No fear of the limelight with this one.  By 10p of so we are finally back home and off to sleep.

Day Eight-Three September 8th

Fearing the drive back out of the old town we start our day early hoping to avoid pedestrian traffic.  The strategy works.  Despite the rain and incredible tight turns the drive is much more manageable before 9a.  

There are two stops today as we travel down towards Florence, , one for Adele and one for Vince.  The first one, Modena, may ring a bell if you like Balsamic Vinegar.  This is the epicenter of the vinegar world.  Every bottle of balsamic vinegar in the States claims to hail from here.  

Adele’s favorite thing in the whole world is bread, oil and vinegar (and dad’s pasta, thank you very much).  She eats it whenever possible: she takes it to school for lunch, enjoys an after school snack, before dinner, with dinner, as dinner, after dinner.  She’ll even try to work it into the breakfast menu given the chance.  Today we get to see how it is made!

When we get to Modena things are a bit hectic.  No surprise parking is difficult and some what of a mystery.  It seems people just pull in anywhere and leave their cars while they go about business.  I would follow suit but with the big Europcar rental sticker on the back and German plates we fear retribution if we do the same.  Eventually we do find a space that looks legit and I manage to squeeze in without setting off the car alarms in front or behind me.  As I turn off the ingnition I am compelled to wave to the crowd of storekeepers keeping an ever present, watchful eye on us.  “Grazie! Grazia! Tutti!”

The archway heading into the “mercato” is non-descript.  The only telltale signs of life inside are the old ladies with shopping bags stuffed so full that the bread and vegetables stick out of the tops.  By chance we decide to wander in and see what we can see.

It is noisy and active, crowded but manageable.  The stalls lining the outer walls, the ones built into the structure, are for meats, fish and dairy, really anything that requires power for refrigeration.  Those in the middle are for fruits and nuts, vegetables, baked goods, oils, vinegars, and wine.  Everything you need is right here.  All being picked over, scrutinized, discussed, held, bounced, smelled and tasted by the grandmothers of Modena.

It is a shame we do not have the HOW, we could have stocked up for weeks.  This place is wonderful.  Armed with dried fruit and nuts we move on in search of the tourist office.  It has moved of course, nothing is where it is supposed to be Italy, but after several attempts we do track it down and mange to set up the balsamic vinegar tour.

They make this stuff in attics.  Who knew.  You kind of expect to see a factory with machines and bottles and labels and stuff.  Instead you get a street address to a house in the city and a buzzer to push where a nice lady with a big smile throws open the door and invites you into to her home. 

“Is this the balsamic vinegar place?” We ask.  “Si! Si! Ciao! Come meet mia madre! First, we go to the attica.”  Did she say meet my mother? We climb the stairs to the attic.  It is all a bit confusing.

Up a flight of stairs, protected by an old attic door, sits a treasure of unimaginable beauty in the eyes of Adele Rose Carcano.  It is here, where the temperatures rise and fall and the humidity can come and go, that the elements are free to work there magic on grapes to create perfection.   

Azienda Agricola Marisa Barbieri has been making balsamic vinegar forever.  The last fifty years they have practiced the tradition in this attic.  There are barrels everywhere, well worn from years, generations actually, of use.  They were part of the dowry of our host, the daughter of Marisa and the current caretaker of them.  

It is hard to believe the vinegar sits for 25 or more years up here going to smaller and smaller barrels getting more and more refined and intense.  One taste and you know that this is what balsamic vinegar is meant to be.  If Adele could move in here she would, she is wide eyed the entire time.
After our tour of the “attic” and our lessons on production and process we are honored to meet the family matriarch in the living room.  We are invited in for cake and coffee where the kids get small gifts: a hand made doll for Adele and a little toy for Vince.  We communicate via hands, eyes, broken French on both sides, smiles and lots of laughter for a half hour or so. We share our travel experiences and plans, discuss recipes for vinegar dishes, exchange emails and then head on our way.  If you are ever in Modena be sure and stop by.

Now we transition from slow and refined to fast and furious.  You see Enzo Ferrari is from the nearby town of Maranello and to Vince, affection ado of all things built for speed, there is no finer way to spend an afternoon than appreciating Enzo’s genius.

The first thing you notice is red.  Everything is red. Then it’s the “cavallino rampante” or stallion that looms over the entrance.  Finally it is simply the cars.  They are works of art: things of beauty.  People stop and stand, as if worshiping an idol.  

The lines are incredible and seductive, their steering wheels and lights make them seem alive.  These are the kings of the jungle just resting for a minute before bothering to chase down prey. It is clear we are in the inner sanctum of the auto world.  You want to fess up and let them know that as former Prius drivers perhaps “we are not worthy.”  But it makes no difference to them.  These cars ignore you unless you can write the check.

Vince is in awe.  For a full twenty minutes he just sits at the center of the Formula One display and stares at the cars.  At one point I wander over to check on him to see if he is OK and he can barely speak.  “Look at the race cars!” is all he can manage to get out not taking his eyes off the race footage playing on big screens above the cars.  I mumble something like “take all the time you need son” and then sit in silence holding his little hand.  I feel like I may have been displaced in some way.

The drive into Florence is easy.  We arrive late and snake our way into the “centro” just off the main square in the shadow of the Duomo.  Our hotel is the Hotel Morandi alla Crocette, a medieval convent that we found in Lonely Planet.  The room reflects the 400 plus years of wear and tear but the people are very nice and helpful and their recommendations are great.  

After a great dinner just a few blocks away we are home and off to sleep post one of our best days in a long time. 

Day Eighty-Four September 9th

Florence is one of our favorite cities.  I am not sure why as it tends to be very crowded with tourists, kind of dirty and the times we have been here very hot.  It must be that history is lurking around every corner: or maybe the ever-present green and white marble of the Duomo juxtaposed to the foreboding stone palaces of the Medici.   Maybe it’s the people that live and work here, zipping by on scooters looking like living breathing works of art.   I don’t know, but I do know it gets under your skin and stays with you for a long, long time.  

The main square is jammed and the line for the top of Duomo (460+ steps) looks to be over an hour wait.  For fun, we check the Tower line (416 steps) and it is wide open!  Adele and I start to climb.  One, two three, four….

The view up top is amazing offering three hundred and sixty degrees of beauty.  You can see all the way out to the Tuscan hills, trace our drive down from the lakes, gaze off towards the sea and get a birds eye view of the city below.  Well worth the climb.  

When we descend we find Teri and Vince and wander aimlessly towards the Arno. 

Vince announces, “I don’t have my bathing suit,” looking very concerned, “or my goggles or float,” he continues, as we stand beneath two enormous statues outside of the Medici Palace next to the Uffizi.  “That’s OK Vince, we have them back at the hotel, we did not forget them.”  I offer trying to placate him.  “No, no, no!” he insists, “my bathing suit for right now, for the Jacuzzi.”   Seriously, this stuff should be in a movie, its just priceless.

The “Jacuzzi” line is too long, best to make reservations in advance, so we walk along to the Ponto Vecchio, cross the river and head downstream searching for “one of the best playgrounds in the city” per Lonely Planet.

We may scratch Lonely Planet off the list as well if this keeps up.  The playground has one swing, a slide and a few homeless guys sleeping on benches.  Someone needs to create an independent, family oriented, travel guide.  One with kid friendly hotels and restaurants, playgrounds, sights and experiences.  It seems that in all of the travel literature, both online and in hard copy, family travel is a sub-section or and after thought.  We have seen many families out and about here in Europe struggling, as we are, to find a high quality family experience.  One without graffiti.

Note to self: There is a business waiting to happen for a company that gives families an alternative to the current status quo.

In the afternoon, Teri and Adele get their nails done while Vince and I play cars and Legos.  Dinner is at the Admiral restaurant a block away and actually tops the meal of last night.  The food here is really something.  Our up coming cooking school is very much top of mind.

Day Eighty-Five September 10th

Like Paris, Florence can be judged by the quality of the Laundromats.  This one is exceptional: it is clean, has soap for purchase by the load, has plenty of room to sort and fold and offers a nice place to stand around and wait while washing.  Plus, I get three loads done in an hour and a half; perhaps record time so far on the TATW.

The kids are in school until 11a.  When they finish we pack up and are ready to move on to our cooking school a day early to settle in and relax before we start our classes on Sunday.  How exciting!

Teri struggles pulling the early arrival together dealing with the people back in Boston that booked our week but in the end it all seems to works out.  We must drop our car a day early at the airport, meet our transport driver and head on out.  They can offer us a regular room for tonight as a bridge to the start of the program.

As it turns out everything here is really close together.  The airport is ten minutes from downtown, Tuscany starts a stones throw from there, and our villa is a short twenty minute ride.

We meet Fabrizio, the driver, at the Europcar place.  He arrives in an old jeep, dirty from a recent family vacation he claims, mumbling something about the other car not being available and the real driver being delayed and speaking a thousand miles an hour in broken English and Italian.  It is all very bizarre, not what we expected, but we go with it none-the-less. 

The name and location of our “villa” have been a mystery.  The folks in Boston don’t actually tell you where you will be they just keep saying “a villa in Tuscany”.  In retrospect I now understand why.  You would never sign up.

The “villa” is run by Fabrizio the driver and it is named Podere Dell’Anselmo.  It sits on a rutty dirt road half way up a hill overlooking some grapes and a bunch of warehouses, not quite high enough up to avoid the sound of the road below.  The place is old and disheveled, not in a charming way but in more of a very casual approach to things.  The sitting area has not been swept from the dinner the night before; the office is a mess with piles of papers stacked everywhere.  

On the surface things seem to be fine.  They put together a lunch of meat and cheese, pour wine and water and scramble around trying to put our itinerary together.  It seems at though we have surprised them with our arrival.  When I ask about the winery, Fabrizio points down to a collection of steel containers around back all disconnected and sitting slightly off kilter. He says, “not to worry, we will tour tomorrow.” The radar goes up. 

When we ask about the kids classes Fabrizio lets us know that actually there are not any other kids here this week and that some other adults will join us. He shrugs and keeps saying, “don’t worry, don’t worry.”  We do.

The first sign of trouble is when we ask if Adele can go horseback riding and they charge us 20E to ride around a ring for an hour.  We understood that for the money we have paid out horseback riding was included in the cost of service.  Apparently not.  Nor is there any welcome information, directions, no snacks for the kids, and no water in the room, no one to tell us how to use the Internet or find food.  

There is a pool but it has no stairs for Vince so he can’t really get in, the ladder moves around when you step on it and the water is cold.  The hot tub is off the kitchen and full of cobwebs.  The kids want nothing to do with it.  The play area has one broken plastic slide and an old plastic playschool playhouse.  It is all sketchy at best.  For the kids sake we make the best of things and forge on. Besides, there’s no one here to talk to anyway.

At dinner we meet young couples from Belgium and Germany and a young Australian women traveling alone.  It turns out that the couples are not in cooking school, they booked on the Internet when searching for a place to stay, and they had no idea classes are available.  Really.

The Australian woman has been to the cooking school and she seems happy though her perspective maybe very different than ours.  We are hopeful that things will work themselves out tomorrow. 

It is off to bed with a growing concern that perhaps this is all a con.  
The seas in my veins, my tradition remains, I’m just glad I don’t live in a trailer – Jimmy Buffett, Son of a Son of A Sailor

Day Seventy-One August 28th

It is pouring today like it does every day.  The HOW is very cold and damp making it difficult to get out of bed. We think about touring the Ludwig castles for a brief second and then pass when the skies open and it starts to rain horizontally.   

We pack up in a downpour and hit the road.  It is a long days drive to Berchtesgarten.  Not much really happens along the way.  We can’t see anything beyond the Autobahn due to the weather.  The entire drive is in a hard rain and the roads are crowded and wet with weary travelers.  The rivers are swollen and breaching their banks in places (just like the us if you think about it) and water is pouring off the mountains from all sides.  I would not want to be downstream.

When we finally get to town everything is closed.  Our GPS is broken so finding the campsites is a challenge.  We pull into Tourist Info to find it locked up tight, so we turn to the map posted outside the office but it is nearly impossible to get our bearings.  Eventually the cleaning lady comes out from the TI place, probably sensing our desperation, and points us in the right direction. 

We pull into a site up the road but decide to pass.  The place does not feel right.  It is full of water and mud and there are very few campers.  It’s kind of creepy in the dark, rainy cold.  

The next one is even worse so we go back to the first one for the lesser of two evils.  This may mark a low point thus far as our spirits are at an all time low.  Nothing here is any fun, in fact its down right uncomfortable.  It pushes us all towards the edge.

Day Seventy-Two August 29th

We wake up in the rain and try to muster some enthusiasm.  Everything is wet and cold.  No change from yesterday, except that this morning we have fresh snow on the mountains. 

If you have heard of Berchtesgarten it is most likely as the famous summer place for the Third Reich.  No wonder the place feels creepy.  They built a tunnel in the mountain and then some kind of retreat way up on top as a gift to Hitler for his fiftieth birthday.  Apparently four thousand people we forced into labor to build the thing.  We want nothing to do with it.  

Actually, we have no interest in the WW2 stuff whatsoever.  In fact, I find it all kind of unsettling to be camping in the middle of such troubled history.  It is hard not to think about the war here: it forces you to face the questions of how and why and what ever for.   I leave the dark side of humanity to others.  All I want to do is pack up and leave. 

The reason we came here is to see the Salt Mines.  They are down valley a short drive, just outside of town and have been in operation in one form or another for almost seven or eight hundred years.  How incredibly cool is that?

Now this is great fun.  The first thing they do is dress you in coveralls with the mine emblem on them and make you feel like a “real” miner.  Then they put you on a small train and drive you 800m straight into the mountain.  The kids can hardly believe it.

It is dark and cold (really no different than outside), with dim lighting along the tunnel walls and a conductor/guide babbling away in German. They did give us audio guides in English but it’s hard to follow along and the experience of being there is more than enough.  

They take us into dark caverns, have us slide down really long wooden slides in almost total darkness, float us across an underground lake in a wooden ferry and let us taste real salt straight from the rock deposits.  In one room they have a scale map that shows were the active mining is taking place complete with live cameras of the mining in action.  This will certain go down as one of the highlights in the kids eyes.  Both are very, very excited.

After the tour we grab a nice lunch at the mines before heading back to Germany.  The drive towards Stuttgart is long and rainy.  We fall short and end up in a nice campsite just off the Autobahn.  The kids play with scooters and bikes in the rain while we do laundry and catch up on the home front via Skype.

We are making the best of it.

Day Seventy-Three August 30th

Last night was probably the hardest rain yet.  No one slept.  Teri gets up early and shops at a market across the way while the rest of us try to fight off the cold.  Even Vince does not want to get out of bed and keeps trying to get back under the covers.  We should have read the signs.

As Adele eats breakfast and Teri does email, Vince leans over the top bunk and projectile vomits down on them from above.  Teri screams and launches her iPad high enough so that it comes down with enough force to put a big dent in the tabletop.  Adele, not knowing what to do, starts to laugh uncontrollably.  I stand watching it all in slow motion.  

Then Vince continues to get sick all over the pillows, down comforter and sheets before hitting a plastic bag I keep moving around trying to catch him.  When he figures out what is going on he freaks out and starts breaking down.  

All at once the world crashes around us.

In that moment we all decide to call this part of the journey over.  The rain is too much for us.  Even with nine days left with the HOW we decide to turn it in and cut the loss.  We are done with the wet and the cold and the rain.

Believe it or not, from that moment on, things start looking up again.

By lunchtime we have cleaned everything up, done a few loads of laundry, played around on the scooters and bikes a bit and put a plan in place for the next few days.  

By early evening we are in the city of Aalen at a Ramada Inn swimming in the local baths.  Despite the ongoing downpour outside our mood has lifted and at long last we are sleeping in a warm, dry place.

After an hour or two of the US Open we are off to a much needed nights sleep.

Day Seventy-Four August 31st, Teri’s B-day

One of the great things about being four years old is that every birthday is the most important day ever.  Vince wakes up Teri with a big “It’s your birthday!” and he is more excited than the rest of us combined. 

We go to the camper and get a “party in the box” we have stashed away for just such an occasion.  He and Adele blow up balloons and set up the noisemakers and party hats.  Then we all open Teri’s gift that Adele and I picked up in Zermatt.  It’s a great party!

For the first time in two months we start the process of repacking our bags with an eye on carrying them across the Middle East, Africa and Asia.  Things we have accumulated quickly get put to the test of weight, size, usage, cost to re-acquire down the road, truly need or luxury.  The must have pile sits on one side, the pass along pile on the other.  The must have is way to big.

We re-sort again and again and then one more time before packing up what we can into our bags.  Anything outside a bag is put into our big IKEA bag for later consideration.   Anything outside of that is left behind.  

We are due for lunch at friends of ours from back home that are living here in Germany in a very small town in striking distance from Stuttgart.  Jana (our age) and Mira  (Adele’s age) spent a year living three houses down from us in Malibu.  They came back home to Germany last year and are currently living in Jana’s hometown.

We drive the HOW down winding one-lane roads trusting the GPS knows where we are going.  Several times we lose the faith in technology only to be reassured by a road sign.  This is the land of rolling green pastures, fields of corn and wheat, cows, sheep, barns and farmhouses.  Small villages surrounding church steeples dot the horizon.  Every once in a while another car passes by.

After half an hour or so we arrive to find a beautiful house tucked deep into the German countryside in what I would then call the middle of nowhere.  However, upon knowing the people and the land, I would now call the center of somewhere.

There is much excitement!  Adele and Mira are like peas in a pod and both of them are beaming.  We have a big lunch and then walk right out the front door and off on a hike in the woods.  Teri and Jana push on leaving Vince and I to search for heffalumps.  

He is out of sorts and stands crying for half an hour looking for his mom.  It is clearly not a dad day.  My heart goes out to him: he must feel so alone without anyone his own age to play with.  He is trying to make the best of things but sometimes it just falls apart.   We worry about him some but hope that in the end it will all work out.  Some days I am not so sure.

The afternoon turns to evening, lunch to dinner and activity to rest.  We enjoy the company of others for the first time in weeks.  Friendship is such a pleasure…   

Day Seventy-Five September 1st

We are up to a breakfast of breads, ham, cheese, cereals and coffee.  

Today is our day to explore the town of Schwabisch-Hall and the farmers market in the main square.  It is a wonderful town square surrounded by houses from the mid-1500s and anchored by an enormous church as old as the hills.  When you stand at the top of the church stairs leading into the square below they seem to be flowing down like water.  They are steep and well worn in the center.

The market takes the whole square with booths set up selling everything edible you need for the week.  It is all local and fresh.  The milk and honey are unpasteurized.  Breads are still warm.  Meats and poultry are sold from specialty butchers.  By the looks of things everything here is “free range.”

It is nice to be with someone from here.  It gives us a whole new sense of perspective.  We have lunch in a small café while the girls (Mira And Adele) wander around and window shop.  The village is safe enough for us to let Vince play out in front of the café while we sit and chat.   It is the first time since we started the trip that we are not en-guard minding both kids.  They are off-leash and it takes some getting used to.

After town we head over to Jana’s parents house for coffee and cake.  It is an incredible farmhouse sitting on a five hundred year old foundation, standing three stories tall with over forty four hundred square meters of living space.  Her parents are wonderful.  They invite us in and make us feel right at home.

In no time the kids are running and playing in the yard while we sit and visit.  Here too it is nice to just sit and relax without worrying about constant oversight.  I am beginning to realize just how tiring it is to be on call 24/7.  When you can let your guard down all you want to do is sleep.

But we can’t because we need to vacuum and clean the HOW before we return it!  Jana’s parents hook us up and we go to town. In no time the HOW looks almost like new, at least the inside does, and two months of dirt and grim are erased in a mere hour or so.  Now that it looks so good the thought of staying in it for one more week is much more appealing but alas it is not to be.

Tomorrow we drive up to Frankfurt to return the HOW and pick up our rental car to begin the next stage of our journey.

Day Seventy-Six September 2nd

Actually we need to go north of Frankfurt by 40K to the town of Friedberg because the HOW place moved while we were out and about.  This makes our 300K drive that much longer and sort of shoots the entire day.  The round trip is close to 650k or around 400 miles.

When we arrive at McRent, Susan, the women that checked us in so long ago, is there to check us out. She sort of benchmarks the HOW experience.  We started out a mere 59 days ago so young, fresh and new to the HOW world.  Now we are seasoned rain weary veterans able to reverse with ease and parallel park in a pinch. 

Susan is busy checking in some “newbies” so we exercise our newly found freedom in our Skoda rental car and head to town for lunch.  When we return Susan has already given the HOW a once over.

She admires our cleanliness and compliments the cleaning job we did.  However, she also finds a “dent” in the side and the hole in the table. I am so relieved she does not comment on the residual from the paint scratch that we don’t really fight the “dent.” In retrospect we should have questioned it, as I do believe it was there when we started out.   The table speaks for itself.

In fact the table actually screams out, “that will be 400 Euro please” and joins a chorus for “and another 100E for the dent” to crescendo into a 500 Euro tab for “damages.”  I am shocked.  To which, Susan suggests we should just send the bill to insurance.

Now this is all very confusing as I thought we had insurance through IdeaMerge and McRent.  Apparently that was for the driving and accidents not necessarily wear and tear damage to the HOW.  She keeps telling us to file with our travelers insurance, which we have, only its medical coverage, not for damages to an HOW.  It almost feel like she has an unwritten rule to try and keep half the damage deposit per rental and that the whole thing is an insurance scam in some way.  No way to tell what is what as the innuendo is lost in translation.  The confusion remains as we drive off 500 Euro poorer and feeling somehow cheated out or the rest.  It seems you can’t win with these rentals.

Maybe because she is feeling sorry for us Susan does let us have Vince’s car seat for the trip down to Italy.  At least that part of his world remains the same.  He is enjoying the day solo with mom and dad but is weary from the driving.   I must say he is a trouper.

Much to her delight Adele stays behind with Mira.  They spend the day playing, riding bikes and visiting Mira’s grandparents.  The highlight is a rare sighting of wild pigs in the forest!  They were hiking right behind Mira’s house when they came across a family of wild pigs standing on the path. Luckily no one was hurt as these things can be aggressive at times.  Instead they all looked at each other and then ran in opposite directions. The girls are thrilled.

When we pull into the drive at 7p we immediately turn around and head over to a neighbors for a dinner of “heaven and earth” or apples and potatoes.  This is a German staple passed down for generations taking advantage of two foods always available in both good times and bad.  We all enjoy the meal and the conversation, exchanging travel tips and exploring the differences between our lifestyles.  Malibu is worlds away.

Day Seventy-Eight September 3rd

We have been struggling with one computer since the iPads have failed to live up to our needs and expectations.  We thought Teri would be able to handle basic email and word processing on her iPad but it is just not working out.  The iPad is really just a big iPod without a camera or word processing, don’t buy one, it will just frustrate you in the end.  So we had to order another laptop and a friend has gone to considerable lengths to get it and ship FedEx it to arrive today.  We are so excited.

The tracking system says it’s off the plane in Koln, Germany and now in transit for an on time arrival prior to 6p.  Excellent! With a FedEx shipping tab of $178 US it should be chauffer driven and hand delivered, after all its not that hard to get a package to LAX, fly it overseas and drive it to us a few hours south of the Koln airport.  That’s what these people do, when it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.

Our day is spent dealing with a few logistics, like picking up travel books in English on Italy and Jordan and shopping for a few remaining travel items, eating the local breads and “bretsels” (a personal favorite) and sending boxes back home to the States.  We also manage to stop by the local terme for a few hours of swim time.

These local swimming complexes are focal points of social activity in each town we visit.  They have pools at several different temperatures, whirlpools, several 50m lap pools, diving platforms, slides of all sizes, kinder pools, impeccably clean changing rooms with lockers and showers, restaurants, lounging areas and plenty of people enjoying themselves, socializing and relaxing.  We don’t have anything like them in the States. The closest we come are probably “the gym” but that’s an individual experience.  Here the baths are a family matter.  

We don’t get back until almost 5p.  Our package is still in transit.  Refusing to believe that FedEx would let us down everyone heads over to the local eatery while I stay behind and wait to great the happy FedEx driver.  6p comes and goes.  

When I finally get through to FedEx on the “International Shipping 800 number”, the conversation is a farce, I come to find out that the package has made it only as far as customs in the Koln airport and is not actually “in” transit but more “stuck in” transit.  They take no responsibility and even go as far as suggesting I send it back to the States for another $178 US and then resend it to another place in Europe for yet another $178 US (or more depending on where we ship it) since they can not re-route it beyond the German border.  So the laptop now costs about as much in shipping and insurance than the actually machine itself, and is sitting somewhere in customs, MIA and out of reach.  After a while you just get numb to the money spilling out of your pockets. 

It’s dark and cold here in the German countryside.  Adele and Mira are out hunting for wild pigs, Vince is reading The Places We Will Go and I sit piecing together thoughts and fragments for the journal.  It feels like it is time to move on.

Tomorrow we go to Italy.